Community of Rhythm, Cleveland

Notes on an Immigrant Experience.

That’s the title of this 14-panel mural that hangs on the west facing wall of Sheliga Drug Store on St. Clair Avenue on the city’s near east side, a project that celebrates some of the diverse nationalities that have settled this Cleveland neighborhood over the past century-and-a-half. This was the first neighborhood my family settled in when we arrived from Slovenia, then Yugoslavia, in 1967. It’s always interesting to see and watch how the neighborhood has, and continues, to evolve.

The panels depict youth from several countries —Slovenia, Croatia, Sudan, Ethiopia, China, Puerto Rico, Lithuania and Nigeria– in native dress and playing local instruments. If it hasn’t already, I’d love to see a band made up of this mix emerge. The Mural artists are Jerome White, Anna Arnold and Ni’kole Robinson.

I was asked about some of my experiences as an immigrant in Cleveland by a friend the other day, and recalled this piece, the only one I’ve ever written about the topic, that was part of a 24-hour memoir project more than seven years ago. It was an excellent exercise which I highly recommend; I may get around to doing it again at some point.

I’ve posted two chapters before –one on the Slovenian seaside town of Piran, which gave this blog its name, and another about contracting cholera, which makes for fun bar conversation, and both among the site’s most visited posts– so thought I’d toss this one out here as well. Given the brevity of the initial project, this was pretty much just a first draft, a steady stream of details that opened several passages in many directions that I didn’t have time to explore. Nonetheless I’ve only made a few edits, mostly for clarity and context. I’ll leave those passages for another time.

~~

Two Suitcases, Two Crying Kids and Two Hundred Dollars.

That’s what my mother claims she and my father hauled with them when they left for the U.S.A. during the cold January of 1967. (Adjusting for inflation and minus the two kids, I didn’t have much more when I moved back thirty-seven years later).

It was also what my friend Chris suggested I title my memoir, if I ever get around to writing one. This one doesn’t really count but it’ll do for a chapter heading.

Our first apartment was in the St. Clair area of Cleveland, near East 55th street, for several generations a magnet for eastern European immigrants. There were plenty of Slovenian grocers, butcher shops, the city’s largest Slovenian church, and restaurants. A few still remain.

Our first address was on Norwood Rd., which is also home to my earliest memory. It’s but a fuzzy black and white fragment in which I only remember someone opening a door towards me while I was standing on the edge of the basement stairs. Apparently it scared the hell out of me. I was about two-and-a-half.

Our next address was literally just around the corner on Karl Avenue, the second story of a duplex where my older brother and I shared our own room. I vaguely recall a small Christmas tree there, lots of snow, and again, plates of steaming sausages. My parents both worked in factories nearby but I don’t remember them ever carrying lunchboxes to work like many of our neighbors did. They just settled for brown bags. For the longest time, I wanted a metal lunchbox. That wouldn’t come until our next move.

Cleveland’s East 185th street area was also working class, largely immigrant, but with slightly bigger yards, and more diligently manicured lawns. People on their hands and knees, carefully hand-trimming the edges of their neatly-cut grass, were not uncommon. We named one Mr. Grass because he would spend his non-working hours –those he didn’t spend maintaining his perfect front yard– sitting by his window to make sure none of us would step on his grass. He was less attentive when the Lawrence Welk Show was on.

His neighbor was equally as anal, but upped the ante one summer when he bought a yellow sparking lawn globe. A few days later, two globes, one pink and one silver, appeared on Mr. Grass’s yard. Within days his neighbor met the challenge when a pink flamingo suddenly nested. One Halloween, all the ornaments, along with a large portion of their yards, were destroyed. Kids can be so mean.

Compared to some others, our yard was huge, big enough for a six-year-old’s baseball field, and was dominated in the summers by the canopy of a large apple tree. I always loved that tree.

My brother and I collected stamps. I still do. Writing letters home helped keep my homesick mom sane. And she forced us to sit down and write letters as well. Her best days were those on which an airmail letter arrived. Our mailman knew that too, so he devised a special knock to let her know that he had a letter from Yugoslavia. My brother and I had the biggest collection of Tito stamps in the neighborhood.

My first school, O.H. Perry, was nearby. It was named to honor Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, the hero of The Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812 which oddly coincides with the Battle of Piran. But that was a long time ago. These days he’s simply known as the namesake behind the Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Commodore Perry India Pale Ale.

I went to grade school with George Jr. and Betsy Voinovich, the oldest kids of George V. Voinovich, who at the time was the Cuyahoga County Auditor, then later elected the Mayor of Cleveland, then Ohio Governor, and finally a U.S. Senator before his name was bandied about as a potential presidential candidate for the Republican Party. (To rightly honor his memory, it needs to be noted that this was all just before the party finally plunged off the deep end.) When Betsy was in third grade and George Jr. in fourth, they both left the Cleveland city schools. I can’t remember if that was ever an election issue when he ran for Mayor.

A slew of Native American tribes, many of which once called this area home before the immigrants started taking over, were also not forgotten in the neighborhood. We lived on Mohawk Avenue, between Pawnee and Muskoka. There was also Chickasaw, Arrowhead, Kildeer, Kewanee, and Shawnee. My oldest friend Stan lived on Arrowhead.

The municipal Neff Pool, where my innocence was shattered during the summer between third and fourth grade, was also nearby, just off of Mohican Avenue. One day, for some inexplicable reason, my brother refused to lock my bike with his. It was of course promptly stolen, and I suspected a kid who lived on Kewanee. When I noticed and leaned over the pool’s deep end to give my brother the news, a kid from Pawnee pushed me in from behind. Even though I took lessons –the cute instructor lived on Shawnee– I’ve never been a good swimmer.

Just about every day, the pool was packed. Through the summers between first and fifth grade, we used it regularly, and I don’t recall once having seen any African-American kids there.

When I was ten, fear of court-enforced school desegregation of the Cleveland public schools, coupled with the unexpected birth of my sister, Metka, precipitated a move to the eastern suburbs which began, among other things, a life-long hatred of malls. Stan’s family moved at nearly the same time and we wound up living about the same distance apart.

I don’t hate suburbs, but they’re not my cup of green tea. I like to open my door, walk out, and actually be somewhere.

I shared this dislike one afternoon with a native Clevelander whose matter-of-fact reply went something like this: “Oh, I don’t know,” he said, before referring to the notoriously rough surroundings of his upbringing. “It certainly beats Hough.”

Touché.

High school was fun, but left no lasting impression. One of the reasons I chose to go to Athens and Ohio University was because nobody from my high school was planning to go there. Nothing personal. I just needed a big break. I wound up staying for nearly a dozen years.

My parents still live in Richmond Heights. It was never their intention to stay in the U.S. permanently. The plan was to work, save some money, and return. But the longer they stayed, the harder leaving became. Even though they’ve spent nearly two-thirds of their lives in the U.S., they both still refer to their annual visits to Slovenia as “going home”.

~~

Today’s Pic du Jour, the site’s 1,168th straight, was snapped in Cleveland, Ohio, on 09-Oct-2014.

More about the project along with a slideshow is on The City of Cleveland’s Mural my Neighborhood website.

 

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10 Comments

  1. sustainabilitea says

    My husband grew up in Ashtabula and we met in Cleveland, living there after we married for 27 years in South Euclid, very close to Richmond Heights. Cleveland is an often-maligned city that’s become a restaurant destination and is, we think, a great place to live. As for Hough, my husband went to computer school with a man who remembered tanks on the streets of Hough during the riots. Suburbs were definitely better than that!

    janet

    1. Bob R says

      Didn’t realize you had NE Ohio roots. Are you still in the area? I haven’t visited in just over two years; luckily it’s much easier to keep in touch with people across the planet these days than it was when my parents made the move 40 years ago.

      1. sustainabilitea says

        We’re now in the suburbs of Chicago, moved by my husband’s job. It really is much easier to keep in touch these days, which has many advantages.

  2. Playamart - Zeebra Designs says

    Very nice post and very timely considering the proposed changes and attitudes about immigrants to the usa… you make a good ‘poster child’ – if only it were that easy….
    Thank you for sharing your story.

  3. margaret21 says

    I really enjoyed this ‘chapter heading’. Write the memoir!

    1. Bob R says

      That is a good one, isn’t it? 🙂 I’ll get on it. One day. Thanks so much for reading.

  4. Manja Mexi Movie says

    Most excellent. That one-day memoir still available? At the first glance of the mural I believed the Slovenian was holding a machine gun.

    1. Bob R says

      Ha! When some Clevelanders play the accordion, it can sound like you’re being gunned down.

  5. paula graham says

    Yea, memories are made of this. As a foreigner of some 40 odd years in the UK (Dutch) I know about “going home”, your motherland remains so forever.

    1. Bob R says

      Whereabouts in the Netherlands are you from? How often do you visit?

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